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Our review of issues in state and national news, with a rotating cast of political people in the know.

Capitol Retort: Protester bills, town hall heat, skyrockets in flight

Editor’s note: Welcome to Capitol Retort, our weekly review of issues in state and national news, with a rotating cast of legal and political people in the know. Answers are edited for length and clarity. Any instances of agreement are accidental.

Question 1: Two bills that increase penalties on protesters who block access to roads, airports and trains cleared committee last week. Another that would allow cities to sue protesters to recover police-response costs waits in the wings. Are you OK with all that?

Greg Davids, GOP House Taxes Committee chair:  Yes. I am not only OK, I am enthusiastically supportive. There are no constitutional rights being violated on these bills.

When people call me saying we are taking away constitutional rights of free speech, that is such a straw-man argument. I tell people to just read the bill and get back to me with where your constitutional rights are being violated. I haven’t had one call back. You cannot block highways; you cannot put other people’s lives in danger. And that is exactly what they are doing. So I totally support the efforts of the authors of those bills. I think if you protest and block I-35 or I-94, you should spend a little time in the county jail to think about how wrong you were.

Mike Freiberg, House assistant minority leader; public health attorney:  No. I have concerns about those bills. I think they will potentially have a chilling effect on the First Amendment. If people are unlawfully protesting, there are laws against that already. Especially being able to sue protesters to recover costs — that just seems to really have a chilling effect. That is kind of troubling to me.

Peggy Flanagan, DFL legislator: No. I’m really concerned about these bills, which came out of the response, I believe, to the Black Lives Matter protests. In particular, the outrage — and rightly so — about the killings of Philando Castile and Jamar Clark. There is a real sense in this community that people need and desire to be heard. When we continue to see injustice, I think people are going to demonstrate and use their right to assemble to bring attention to the issues that are impacting their lives every day.

Let’s be honest about what these bills are really about. They punish those who struggle to be heard by the government and they chill free speech.

Question 2: Demonstrators across the United States are crowding into town hall meetings and letting GOP congressional leaders have it. Is this a new progressive movement, or just sound and fury signifying nothing?

U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer answers a question near the end of a town hall meeting Feb. 22 in Sartell. Emmer's town hall went on as planned after the congressman said he would shut down the event if protests or unruly attendees disrupted the conversation. (AP photo: St. Cloud Times)

U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer answers a question near the end of a town hall meeting Feb. 22 in Sartell. Emmer’s town hall went on as planned after the congressman said he would shut down the event if protests or unruly attendees disrupted the conversation. (AP photo: St. Cloud Times)

Davids: It’s a very small minority that hasn’t figured out what happened on Nov. 8.

Freiberg: It does kind of feel that way. I think that people are really motivated right now. I’ve been receiving emails from people who have never emailed me before. I had my town hall meeting a few weeks ago — last year we had maybe 10 people show up; this year we had more than 50. It kind of reminds me of when the Affordable Care Act was being debated in 2010 and people started showing up to Democratic town hall meetings of members of Congress.

My wife [Lauren] certainly has political beliefs, but she is not interested in the daily grind of politics. Yet she has taken an interest and has been emailing her federal legislators and the governor. She has never done that before. I told her she could email me, too, but she didn’t think that would be necessary.

Flanagan: I think when thousands of people show up at town halls, folks should be paying attention.  The questions that people are asking, at least from what I’ve seen, have been about real issues that affect their bottom line — in particular, access to health care. And I think that some of the folks that are showing up wouldn’t fall under that sort of “progressive” label. They are just folks who are scared and upset and want their elected officials to know. I think people are engaged in a way they have never been engaged before.

I am deeply troubled that we have some folks in Congress who just are not showing up, or who are conducting “telephone town halls.” That is, I think, pretty cowardly. If you are going to talk about repealing and replacing Obamacare, then you’d better come and talk to the community about what you plan to replace it with.

Question 3: A Swedish town is thinking of offering one paid hour a week for — let us put this delicately — procreation. Is this evidence that America needs more powerful labor unions?

Davids: I love the Swedes, but I think they must have better things to talk about. I don’t think it falls under our economic development policies.

Freiberg: I think we definitely need to support our brothers and sisters in the labor movement. But I don’t know that this would be the best way for them to spend their time.

Flanagan: Well, hey! My hope for everyone is that you don’t need that to be mandated in your life and that it’s something that is … you know … just natural and a part of your schedule on a regular basis.

I actually think we should keep government out of our bedrooms. There’s the bottom line.

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